While My Guitar Controller Gently Weeps

While My Guitar Controller Gently Weeps

As both a game developer and a gamer, I am sad to see the guitar controller fading into obscurity. Guitar controllers are a fun and unique interface to control games, but unfortunately, it seems as though their time may have passed. I reject that.

Rhythm games have been popular for many years, but Rock Band and Guitar Hero were able to create almost universal appeal. Do you know anyone who doesn’t enjoy playing Rock Band? I don’t. Even “non-gamers” gladly join in at parties. The main reason those games became so popular was the accessibility of the guitar controller. People could almost instantly pick it up and figure out how to play.

Plus, it’s more fun to play a fake guitar than fiddling with a gamepad.

Most people at some point dream of being a rock star. Even if you never thought you could make it as a pro-rocker, can you honestly tell me that you’ve never played air guitar? Holding something resembling a guitar and rocking out is more fun that just pushing buttons. With the guitar controller, it’s not just about the game input anymore. You can emulate the spectacle of being a rock star while playing. Even if you don’t get the high score, you can impress your friends with your style.


Gamer with lots of guitar controllers (via WorldofCrap.com)

Although many games these days seem like carbon copies of others, the field of game development is limitless. However, the type of experience developers can make is somewhat limited by input mechanism. It is great that there are many different input mechanisms available to game developers presently — multitouch screens, Kinect, Move, etc, but I am of the opinion that the more control schemes that are available, the better. Games are an experience, and the way you interface with them has a huge effect on the experience of the game. It would be possible to play Dance Dance Revolution with a gamepad or Steel Battalion with a keyboard and mouse, but it would not be the same experience and not nearly as enjoyable.

Despite the inherent coolness of the guitar controller, I believe its popularity waned because developers didn’t offer new experiences for it. Even though there are a multitude of gameplay possibilities that could be guitar driven, most developers released software similar to what was out there. Many of the games were outstanding and innovative in a number of ways, but the core mechanics were the same, and many gamers (myself included) felt franchise fatigue.

I will concede that what you can do with a guitar controller is limited compared to the general purpose gamepad, but if games are designed around the strengths of the controller, there are plenty of new experiences that can be offered. I work at 24 Caret Games, and we are close to releasing Retro/Grade, a reverse spaceship shooter that is playable with a guitar controller. The premise is that time is flowing backwards, and you have to pilot your space ship through a maze of enemy projectiles and unfire your own lasers.

Although Retro/Grade has been designed from the beginning to be playable with a gamepad as well, I find it’s more fun to play with the guitar. Retro/Grade has been featured at many festivals and conventions, IGF, IndieCade, Fantastic Fest, and PAX, and we’ve noticed that gamers gravitate towards playing with the guitar. The split was about 80/20 according to the statistics we collected at PAX Prime 2011.

Obviously, it is disappointing to me that when we release Retro/Grade later this year, it’s going to be difficult for gamers to find a guitar peripheral if they didn’t hang onto them, but it’s also disappointing because I think there are still many interesting gameplay possibilities left unexplored. For example, the Guitar Hero guitars have some motion sensing capabilities beyond the binary tilt sensor in the Rock Band guitars. Wouldn’t it be cool to have game where swinging your “axe”, actually worked in game as an axe? I think it would be really fun to have a guitar based game along the lines of “Temple Run“. I just came up with those ideas off the top of my head, but if the guitar controller stuck around, I think other game developers would do more fun and exciting things with it. Unfortunately, it seems like that avenue may be closed — at least in the immediate future.

Although it’s easy to look back at guitar peripherals and call it a fad, I think it deserves to be remembered fondly as a great game interface. If you haven’t parted with your guitar controller, think twice before you part with it because the next time you want to play Rock Band, it may be difficult to find a replacement.

Matt Gilgenbach is the co-founder of the indie studio 24 Caret Games where he works on Retro/Grade and occasionally updating their twitter feed and facebook page. He’s been developing games professionally for nine years across a wide variety of platforms.

Top photo: Musician Pixie Lott at a 2009 London event for Guitar Hero 5, Neil Mockford | Getty Images


  • I’m a bit of a Macross fan, including (the quite silly) Macross 7, where the main character flies his valkyrie with a guitar…. I cant help but feel that this was a tie in that should have happened, especialy as later in the series he is joined by his band members, one flying with a bass guitar, and on with the pilot on keboard and the copilot on drums…

    Rock Band being played to defeat swarms of enemies whould be awesome… (admitedly they didn’t “defeat” the enemy, they just fired speaker pods into them and may them listen to their music… like I said Macross 7 -whilst sorta fun- was really quite silly)

    • Sadly I think Macross 7 predates the guitar controller craze by nearly a decade. Also a lot of people (horrible people) didn’t like it.

      Tie-in Rock Band game would have been awesome though.

  • ” inherent coolness of the guitar ” this made me laugh out loud. It’s not cool, it’s a toy, it’s like a ‘my first instrewment’ for a 5 year old.

    Get a real guitar and teach yourself to play, or get lessons from someone who knows what they’re doing, It’s much more fun and rewarding and you get more out of it than just a high score. It’s abut learning a new skill and teaching yourself to think differently, it may be difficult and frustrating at first but ultimately it’s a lot more satisfying and much more creative if you stick with it.

    • ./yawn at your stance.
      ever thought people just want to play a music game and have some fun. and have no interest in learning an instrument.
      ever thought its more about getting together with mates or even people around the world and playing and having a good time.
      no, you are probably in the same group that all games are for kids etc.

      • yawn at your stance too buddy, and your close minded ignorance and apathy.

        Sure i have thought people just want to play a music game and leave it at that, and that’s cool, but if this guy is going to go to the length of writing an entire article devoted to his lamentation over the death of the guitar controller, surely it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest he move on to something similar, delve deeper into his love of the guitar controller and …get a real guitar?

        “ever thought its more about getting together with mates or even people around the world and playing and having a good time.”

        Ever heard of a band? That’s what I do. You don’t have to know heaps of people or have connections or anything, you just have to play an instrument and be social, sooner or later you meet people (even people you wouldn’t normally have met) and have a jam, drink soe beers and maybe write some songs. It’s fun for me. I’m not saying you have to quit your day job or anything but again I see it as a logical step from loving the guitar controller and music games to move into something more challenging and more rewarding.

        if i was in the ‘group’ that all games are for kids, why would I be on game site daily reading about games? i’m not a kid. Sure there are games aimed at kids and there are games aimed at adults, but I’m not sure why you would think that based on my suggestion for someone to further their love of music games and guitar based controllers by taking up the real thing.

        • Um, wow. Respect your stance and all, being in a band has nothing to do with the article author’s goals. He’s saying that it’s more fun to play some non-band games with those controllers. Might be tricky playing the space shooter or temple run with a real guitar. Or maybe not, and somebody should explore it – and that’s his point too!

          • I was merely suggesting playing in a band as an alternative to rock band style games as a progression from those games. Which, after the ‘death’ of the genre is becoming harder to do as the games/controllers/peoples appetites for such games are dying out.

            I would be very interesting to play a space shooter with a guitar controller though, i guess it would be somewhat like being blue grass from silver hawks. I always thought he was awesome.

        • GL getting a band with people from around the world to play at same time.
          id like to know hoe ignorance and apathy comes in from stating that why don’t you consider other people point of view, instead of being dismissive of others choices that seems opposite of closed minded. and as for apathy
          i have no idea how you get a lack of wanting to learn an instrument as apathetic. its i just don’t want to. you might not want to lean how to open a bottle with your forehead does that make you apathetic no. tis a personal choice.
          Id like to ask if people are playing the old virtual cop at the arcade, people don’t say uuuugghhh why don’t you learn to use a real gun. same logic there
          what about people that are unable to learn a real instrument either by physically unable to live in apartment. im sure my neighbors would love for me to turn my liking playing the rock band drums into real drumming

          • Playing rock band is not the same as playing IN a rockband, you press buttons on a controller along with the music, which is different to playing the music itself. I’m not saying either one is better than the other, merely offering the suggestion that if this guys can’t/doesn’t want to play rockband style games that there is always the option to play real guitar and learn to play music.

            I got ignorance and apathy from your response to my post (yawn, ave no interest in learning an instrument, making assumptions about me with no knowledge of who i am) and the attitude you took towards my SUGGESTION to the author of the article.

            playing music and killing people is slightly different, although if someone likes shooting a virtual gun that much but are no longer able to do it because of a lack of those kind of games then why not go to a shooting range? They would probably love it. Same kind of logic applies, Start off on something simple, unable to play it anymore for whatever reason or need more of a challenge, try something more in depth, go straight to the source.

            I’m not saying people who are handicapped who can’t play guitar hero anymore MUST learn to pay a real guitar, but i’m sure if they did, they would find a away. I’ve seen videos of people with disabilities doing all types of awesome stuff, much better than me, why not playing guitar? if someone wants to do something bad enough they’ll make it happen. Disabled people probably have more will power than most able bodied people so power to them.

            Same goes for you, if you want to play drums, go and learn to play drums. Most drummers know have electronic kits so they can practice at home, or jam with a band a couple times a week to get their chops up. Screw your neighbours, i blast my marshall at my house (at reasonable hours of course) because i want to, and because i want to drown out the sound of their screaming kids.

        • I’m not gonna /yawn at your comment but I am getting quite sick of this dead horse that people love to flog.

          I see your point that its a logical stand to play a real instrument, it’s a peoples choice to do what they like without being told what to do or what they should do.
          I’ve played a real guitar for 18yrs now, i love it. In the same sense these games are quite fun for when you just wanna screw around with mates. Most of which have no musical talent, and most dont want to (or have the time)

          People like the game, people like the guitar controller sometimes. It’s life, personal preference sometimes, and above all, it’s their choice.

          • I never said he HAS to play real guitar, so i’ll reiterate:

            I was suggesting, since the author was lamenting the death of the music genre as a whole thus the lack of controllers/games/people to play with that he PROGESS into playing real music. Not everyone HAS to do this, sure it can be kind of fun, but if someone is thirsting for more of a challenge or more of a indepth experience why not suggest to them to learn to play an instrument?

          • ^this and im stopping now. frankly its juvenile to argue about it. I shouldn’t have made assumptions that you are in games are for kids group as i don’t know you.
            but im sssooo tired of hearing that argument, that is just so dismissive, sorry but it did not read as a polite suggestion but as something dismissive and rude especially your first sentence after the quote. of some people that just want to load up a game for a short while get some enjoyment from it and move on. not for it to become a life long hobby.

            so peace out

          • No worries, I was trying to express an opinion that doesnt come off highly rude and arrogant like most people who are musicians do. It’s an arguement that has no end. Most users comments become “omg real guitar over plastic” and while it may be true, most “muso’s” need to build a bridge and get over it, lol.

            Have a fantasic day and I’m glad you didnt see it as offensive, hehe.
            Back to Final Fantasy XIII-2 for me

          • “No worries, I was trying to express an opinion that doesnt come off highly rude and arrogant like most people who are musicians do.”

            Hahahahahaha. Jerk. Just kidding, but that is a big generalisation. Anyway, have fun playing FFXIII-2 (longest acronym ever).

    • You completely missed the point of the article…

      Plus, your later comments about how playing Rock Band isn’t the same as playing in a rock band, and how playing Guitar Hero isn’t the same as playing a real guitar are akin to a chef stating that playing Cooking Mama isn’t the same as actually learning how to cook – both are equally irrelevant statements unless someone actually argues that the two things are the same in the first place or you’re playing the role of Captain Obvious. It’s like someone saying Frodo’s a hobbit when people are discussing the merits of the LoTR movies. So what? It has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

      What is it with musicians (sorry for the generalisation, I see that there are some here who aren’t like this at all) feeling the need to talk down music games (and people who play them) in general? I’ve heard guitarists go on about Guitar Hero, drummers saying the Rock Band/Band Hero drum controllers aren’t anything like playing with a real drum kit, and even singers tell people that getting the Superstar grade on Singstar doesn’t mean you’re a good singer. Are they all so insecure of their talents that they feel the need to lambaste anyone who enjoys these games for being good at them?

      • ^ This. Sick of it. I know plenty of people who are in a band, and are addicted to Rock Band. Because they LOVE MUSIC, and these are too very different ways to enjoy it.

      • A challenger appears! Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro Am!

        Also I want to say that playing Guitar Hero (which by the way I’m a pro at, not to toot my own horn… okay so maybe I am a little) is what got me into playing electric guitar and hopefully one day playing in a band. Anyone who says that if people like GH/RB so much then they should just play an instrument is silly. People play games because they’re fun, not because it’s like the real thing. Otherwise we’d have people going off to war because they like CoD, or carrying swords in public because they like FF, or committing crimes because they like GTA… okay bad example there. /rant

    • I was playing the shit out of Beatles Rock Band while my bass sat neglected (for years). A friend mentioned he had just bought a new guitar and I continued on playing Beatles Rock Band. It was probably about a month later the light bulb went off.
      Decided to give the real deal a go (had only ever played by myself) and it was a horrible experience – sucked so bad. Beer and time helped me get better and now we are halfway to being halfway competent now but I can easily see a lot of people not enjoying the period of shitness you need to go through to get better.
      Learning to play an instrument is ultimately a more rewarding experience but the “fun” parts take a long time to reach unlike a game where you are rewarded pretty much from the end of your first game.

  • This is just from the stance of trying to promote a game. The guitar controllers are not dead, Harmonix are still going strong with Rock Band. Mad Catz and Harmonix are even rereleasing Rock Band 3 later this year with instuments due to the death of MTV Games.

    It is far from over

  • I for one am glad for the death of music games (guitar hero specifically) for the simple fact that the market became so flooded with them at a time that the fun had been sucked out of them.
    My next hope is the destruction of motion controls. I love Skyward sword, but damn, I wish i could just play it like twilight princess on my old cube.
    Just call me a dinosaur I guess.

  • To me the problems were that Activision went overboard flooding the market, and flooded it with the wrong stuff.

    I never bought GH5, it had a few songs I’d play, and a heap I wouldn’t.
    They should’ve taken the SingStar route, ‘Guitar Hero: black metal’, ‘Guitar Hero: 90’s rock’, ‘Guitar Hero: Underground’, those would’ve sold for longer.

    Having a numbered iteration come out every 11 months as well as 6 named titles (Metallica, Smash Hits, etc.) in the same period meant there was no time to look forward to the next one, it felt like you were spending 80 bucks on the same thing, and everyone needed a break at once.

    If they had’ve gone the route of less main titles, and changed their band centric titles into genre specific titles, I think they could’ve kept milking it a lot longer.

    As for Rock Band, if they had’ve bothered releasing in Australia properly I would’ve bought it. I even put down an order with JB HiFi for RB1 but it never came.
    Oh well, less money for them.

  • I think it’s more do do with market saturation. Everyone has one, or knows someone with one. It’s just that none of us need to keep paying $100 for 30 new songs every 6 months.

    I still have it, I know a ton of people who do, we love playing it drunk, but thats about it, when there’s real gaming to be had BF3 comes out.

  • Blame the sound and thorough raping the Guitar Hero/Rock Band franchise received in world record time for the demise of such things as the guitar controller.

  • Hmm. Using a guitar controller for music AND gameplay could result in an awesome Ziggy Stardust game. Someone should get on that.

  • “Do you know anyone who doesn’t enjoy playing Rock Band?”


    “Most people at some point dream of being a rock star. Even if you never thought you could make it as a pro-rocker, can you honestly tell me that you’ve never played air guitar? Holding something resembling a guitar and rocking out is more fun that just pushing buttons. With the guitar controller, it’s not just about the game input anymore. You can emulate the spectacle of being a rock star while playing. Even if you don’t get the high score, you can impress your friends with your style.”

    Hahahaha. Yeah, nah.

    Yes, I have never air-guitar’d. Or used something else as a stand-in guitar. I don’t understand anything in that whole paragraph.

    I play several instruments, but don’t see how these games are in any way meant to be a substitute for a real one at all as suggested so often particularly in the arguments above. For me it’s just another game. I’m not sitting there pretending to be a rock star. I’m playing a game, trying to master each level on harder and harder difficulties until my score is good enough for that five-star rating. And it’s fun.

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